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Auditor general flags 'inappropriate' communications from city staff regarding Barrhaven development

Ottawa City Hall
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The city of Ottawa's auditor general has found that city staff inappropriately endorsed a proposal for a development in Barrhaven and left city council out of the loop on key decisions.

The investigation began after a tip to the city's fraud and waste hotline, Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon said in a report prepared for Monday's audit committee meeting.

The development in question is called The Conservancy, described by the developer, Caivan, as a "master-planned community" set along the Jock River. According to images on the developer's website, the development is bordered by the Jock River to the south, Highway 416 to the west, Strandherd Drive to the north and Greenbank Road to the east. Homes for sale range in size from 2,154 sq. ft. to 4,396 sq. ft.

Council approved an official plan amendment for the development on April 25, 2018 to designate the area as residential.

The site, however, is on the Jock River floodplain. Typically, residential development is not permitted on floodplains for a variety of environmental and safety reasons. During the application process in 2018, it was determined that a review of the flood line would be undertaken, given that the last update was from 2005. Should the line move, development could proceed on land no longer considered part of the floodplain.

Gougeon's investigation found, however, that the floodplain review was never completed because the city and the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) agreed that the results would not be substantially different from what was determined in 2005 and the review would not be appropriate value for money.

Despite this determination, then-mayor Jim Watson and the city's general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development at the time, Stephen Willis, wrote a letter to the RVCA on March 13, 2019 to "reemphasize the importance of completing the Barrhaven community" and to "reinforce the floodplain mapping update with priority."

Gougeon said the letter was "in misalignment with conclusions made by City staff and the RVCA based on independent analysis." Her investigation also found that city council was not informed about the decision not to proceed with the floodplain review.

Cut and fill application

In an attempt to proceed with the development, Caivan filed a "cut and fill" application with the RVCA, proposing to add 407,000 cubic metres of soil to the area and remove 116,000 elsewhere.

A "cut and fill" involves filling a certain volume of land in the floodplain and then, typically, cutting the same volume out elsewhere. Gougeon noted that there is no prerequisite for any Planning Act approval by the City before a cut and fill application can be granted by the RVCA under Section 28 of the Conservancy Authorities Act.

The RVCA said this application was the largest cut and fill it has ever dealt with, and required sign-off by its executive committee. Once approved, it effectively altered the floodplain line to allow development to proceed. The cut and fill was approved by the RVCA with specific conditions including the design and implementation of a monitoring plan over a 10-year period for any potential adverse conditions and erosion as a result of the cut and fill, Gougeon's report said.

The RVCA requested a letter of endorsement from the city for the application. The letter, written by the city's director of planning services, Lee Ann Snedden, on Nov. 7, 2019, confirmed the city's support for approving the cut and fill application.

The letter said, in part, "we want to reinforce the support Council has expressed for this file," but Gougeon found most councillors were unaware that a cut and fill application was being considered and were under the impression that a floodplain review was being undertaken. City management has said that the line referencing council referred to the 2018 approval of the official plan amendment for the project.

Gougeon, however, found the letter inappropriate.

"It is not the City’s role as part of the planning process to endorse, support or advocate for a developer’s application with another regulatory body, such as the RVCA," she wrote. "It was confirmed that the issuance of this letter was a violation of departmental processes as this external communication was not signed off on by the General Manager."

'Surprising' outsource of infrastructure review

Given that the lands in question were on a floodplain, they were not adequately equipped to allow residential development connected to the city's water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. Typically, a development undergoes a council-approved process called a "master servicing study". Caivan, however, proposed a smaller-scale "master infrastructure review" to which the city agreed.

Typically city experts would conduct the review, but Gougeon's investigation found that the planning services department hired a third-party consultant for this work. City staff within the asset management branch, who would typically do the work, told Gougeon's office that it was "surprising" that the work was outsourced. They also said they were informally asked for input because of their specialization and expertise and "to bridge gaps in the understanding of the consultant."

Gougeon said this decision was not in the city's best interests.

"Removing key City representatives with the applicable technical skills and perspectives from the application review process increases the risk that equipment and processes being proposed by the developer may not be in the best interest of the City," she said.

Recommendations

Gougeon made three recommendations in her report.

The first is for the general manager of the planning, real estate and economic development department ensure that key decisions and/or results associated with directions from city council are communicated back to council in a timely manner. Management agreed and vowed to issue a communication to staff by the end of this year.

The second recommendation calls on the general manager of the planning, real estate and economic development department to establish a formal policy outlining that the city does not take an advocacy or endorsement position for any developer or development as input into a third-party’s decision making. Management agreed to have this policy in place by the end of the year.

The third and final recommendation calls on the general manager of the planning, real estate and economic development department to establish a formal role for city of Ottawa subject matter experts in cases where a consultant is hired to conduct a peer review. Management said the policy would be in place by the end of the end of June 2024. 

The audit committee meets at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

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